Lord Justice Leveson was handed a daunting and unenviable task, but he has produced a report that makes good sense for the public, the press and politicians alike.
Aside from understandable concerns over the impact upon free speech, there is a growing consensus in favour of what has been proposed. Across the political parties and within the press themselves, there seems to be an agreement that Leveson’s main principles are sensible ones. He suggests a robust new self-regulator of the press – independent not only of politicians but also of editors and proprietors. The scheme would be voluntary but members who comply could enjoy rewards, such as protection from exemplary damages.
With far more clout than the toothless PCC, the new body would have the power to impose fines, conduct investigations and order corrections and apologies. The public would get greater access to swift and affordable redress when breaches do occur.
Crucially, the only new legislation involved might be a statute setting out the characteristics that any regulatory group would need to meet to gain the legal incentives discussed. The law would not establish the watchdog itself. It would not be compulsory for newspapers to form such a body – nor would it be compulsory for one to conform to its standards.
It may also be possible to achieve these incentives without resorting to legislation. But if legislative incentives are preferred, the Prime Minister is right to be concerned about any government-appointed body “supervising” the independent regulator. That would bring about the danger of political control by the backdoor. It is unnecessary and must be resisted.
Furthermore, the Report contains a last-ditch alternative of compulsory statutory regulation, should the press be unwilling to implement his proposed scheme. Again, the Prime Minister is right to reject this unacceptable plan B, which Liberty would be unable to support. Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and must be protected. Such a move would send a terrible message to despots.
The majority of Britain’s journalists do a fantastic job in holding the powerful to account and serving the public interest. The unethical and criminal acts of a select few cannot be allowed to erode centuries of press freedom.
Ultimately the onus is now on the media themselves to address Leveson’s concerns, respond positively to his findings and implement the new robust model of self-regulation he proposes. This scheme, unlike unthinkable statutory regulation, has a little bit of something for everyone.
Shami Chakrabarti is Director of Liberty